Who Was Emily Davison?
Emily Wilding Davison joined the Women's Social and Political Union in 1906, then quit her teaching job to work full-time for equal voting rights. A militant member of the British suffragette movement, Davison was jailed several times for protest-related offenses and attempted to starve herself while serving time in Manchester's Strangeways Prison. In 1913, she stepped in front of a horse during the Epsom Derby and died of her injuries.
Born October 11, 1872, in London, England, Emily Wilding Davison was one of Britain's most famous suffragists. She was a bright student at a time when educational opportunities were limited for women. After attending Kensington Prep School, Davison took classes at Royal Holloway College and at Oxford University, but she couldn't officially earn a degree from either institution. Women were prohibited from doing so at the time.
After leaving school, Davison found work as a teacher. She eventually started dedicating her spare time to social and political activism. In 1906, Davison joined the Women's Social and Political Union. The WSPU, established by Emmeline Pankhurst, was an active force in the struggle to win the right to vote for women in Britain.
In 1909, Davison gave up teaching to devote herself full time to the women's suffrage movement, also known as the suffragette movement. She was unafraid of the consequences of her political actions, willing to be arrested and ended up imprisoned several times on various protest-related offenses.
Davison spent a month in Manchester's Strangeways Prison that same year. While in prison, she attempted a hunger strike. Many jailed suffragists went on hunger strikes to protest the government's refusal to classify them as political prisoners. Davison barricaded herself in a cell for a time. The guards flooded her cell with water. Later writing about the experience, Davison stated, "I had to hold on like grim death. The power of the water seemed terrific, and it was cold as ice," according to the journal Social Research.
In 1912, Davison spent six months at Holloway Prison. Suffragists were treated brutally in prison, and those who went on hunger strikes became subject to being force-fed. Davison thought she could end the abuse of her fellow suffragists by jumping off a prison balcony. She later explained her idea, stating, "The idea in my mind was that one big tragedy may save many others," according to Social Research. This action showed just how far Davison would go for her peers and her cause.
It is unclear what exactly Davison had in mind on June 4, 1913. She attended the Epsom Derby with the intent of advancing the cause of women's suffrage, bringing with her two suffragette flags. After the race began, Davison ducked under the railing and strode onto the track. She put her hands up in front of her as Anmer, a horse belonging to King George V, made its way toward her. King George V and Queen Mary were watching this spectacle unfold from their royal box.
The horse crashed into Davison and struck her in the head. The jockey riding Anmer was also injured, but the horse was unhurt. Davison was taken from the track and brought to a nearby hospital. Never regaining consciousness, she died four days later on June 8, 1913. Press reports criticized her actions as the act of a madwoman, but suffragist newspapers hailed Davison as a martyr for the cause. Whether she intended to commit suicide at the derby has been debated for years. Some think it was accidental as Davison had bought a round-trip train ticket to go home after the event. In any case, supporters of the Votes for Women campaign turned out by the thousands for Davison's funeral procession. Her body was laid to rest in Morpeth, Northumberland. Her gravestone reads "Deeds not Words," a popular suffragist motto.
Roughly 15 years after her death, Davison's dream was finally realized. Britain gave women the right to vote in 1928.
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